The Burrow, 1998

"Charlie, can't you give it a rest with that camera?"

Hermione looked up from the kitchen table just as the flash flared. George staggered back, blinking, the camera still poised to get an extreme close-up of his left nostril. Behind Charlie's back Fred was trying to use stealth to get the object out of Charlie's hands.

"Mmm, these arils are sweet, and just a little bit tart. Want some, Hermione?"

She turned her attention back to her table-mate, Sirius, who had just sliced open a pomegranate and was busy extricating the seeds from the white pulp.

"Oh, thanks, Sirius, my favorite." Hermione ignored her ridiculous feminine reaction. The deep, resonant tenor of his voice always seemed to slide along her nerves like warm butter. The tips of his fingers and his lips had a slightly red stain from wrestling the fruit open and sampling its flavor. It was pure lunacy that she found it sensual. He might be fond of her, but he didn't see her like that.

Sirius pushed a wedge of the thick-skinned fruit toward her that was heavily loaded with the sweet, red seeds. Before she could taste any, though, Charlie was back to rounding up people for group shots.

"Come on, you two!" he said motioning to the pair at the table. "Now isn't the time for all that, Sirius! We need photographic commemoration, damn it."

"Time for all of what?" Hermione asked Sirius. He just rolled his eyes and gave Charlie a dark look. He was up swiftly and then said something quietly to Charlie, who simply returned a cheeky grin.

"Fred, George, Ron; gather round, you lazy sods," bellowed Charlie, though in good nature. Fred and George pushed Ron into the line of Charlie's fire while making faces at their younger brother.

"Harry, Remus; come on you two," cajoled Sirius as he got into place beside Hermione. Remus shook his head, but looked vaguely amused at the proceedings and played along.

"Alright, alright," said Harry. He took a stand in front of Remus. Sirius, the tallest in the group, stood to one of Harry's shoulders, and Ron the other. While the twins provoked Ron, Hermione felt a cautious hand wend its way around her waist, and then pull her in a little. She looked up just in time to catch Sirius and Charlie share a significant look. When she turned her head to see if she could read Sirius' expression, wondering what that look had been about, she found that he was busy making a fool of Remus (or perhaps just himself) with two fingers doing rabbit ears behind the werewolf's head. His quiet "Furry Little Problem" earned him snickers from the group, and a very patient sigh from Remus.

Just as Charlie was about to take the shot, Hermione felt her whole body lurch to the left as at just that moment, Sirius hip-bumped Harry as Ginny walked into the room.

"Damn it, Black!" growled Charlie, but without any real menace. Just as he was about to try for another shot, the kitchen door to the yard opened and in walked Percy. His arrival had a quieting effect on the whole group. Things were better but not quite normal with Percy, who was still a bit lost when it came to interacting with his family.

"I'm not interrupting, am I?" asked Percy, as he closed the door behind him and took a hesitant step inside.

There was a moment of awkward silence before Hermione piped up, saying, "Of course not, Percy. We were just taking group shots for Charlie. Come join us."

Hermione felt the arm around her middle tighten almost imperceptibly, and thought she heard a slight grumbling groan from Sirius. It was so quiet, though, that she couldn't be sure.

"Thanks, Hermione," said Percy.

That seemed to be enough for the crowd of Weasleys and extended family to let go of the awkward moment as Fred sent a jinx to Ron's flaming red hair, turning it a lush purple.

Three years later...
Ministry of Magic: Office of Hermione Granger

"I thought that went very well!"

Hermione smiled up as her boyfriend entered. As always Percy's robes were impeccably neat, his shockingly red hair parted perfectly down the middle, and his little blue bow tie straight as a pin.

"Do you really?" Hermione frowned, hating the fact that she could hear that tiny bit of doubt lacing through her words.

"Oh, yes," he replied smugly, "I spoke with the Minister himself after you left." He tapped his nose with his finger. "He says once you bring in your experts, Umbridge will have no choice but to back off."

"I really hate that woman," she said darkly. She had believed that today the Wizengamot would make their final decision. Either they would accept her revisions to existing laws to be voted upon or they would not. She had not expected another stalling tactic from Umbridge. The beastly woman had cited an arcane bit of legal procedure as a last attempt to put Hermione off this business of equality for non-wizarding beings. According to protocol she had just one week to gather professional opinions. "If I can't meet her demand, I'll have to start all over again! Where am I supposed to get testimony on such short notice?" The prospect was daunting.

"It's just a formality, ducks," he soothed, side-stepping the issue of Umbridge altogether; lambasting the woman would border on hypocritical as he had once worked very hard to earn her approval. Percy took his seat across the desk from her and began to write some names on a sheet of parchment. "Now, these are a few people I think you ought to speak with." He handed the sheet across to her.

She perused the first name on the list and the note he had written beside it. "Charlie makes sense, but why in person? Couldn't I just owl?" Hermione worried her lower lip in frustration as she contemplated the hassle of a trip to Romania.

Percy shook his head sagely. "Well, as you know, the Wizengamot is familiar with him. Father always calls on him when he needs a professional opinion on magical creatures. But he is also damn hard to get off the preserve. That is why I suggest you go in person, talk him up a bit. That's one of your strengths, you know, your ability to talk people into a corner until they either have no choice but to agree with you or give up out of sheer exhaustion."

Hermione ducked her head to hide a small smile, though she wished she had his confidence in her. "Percy, you know him better than that. If there is one man in this world I can't bully it's your brother Charlie."

"And me," he retorted quickly, but then caught her smile and grinned himself.

"You I never have to bully, Percy. We usually see eye to eye on everything."

"Great minds think alike." Percy checked his watch and then crossed his legs, casting a glance over his shoulder at the door. Hermione frowned slightly at his fidgeting. He was always worried that he didn't look industrious enough. It was an intrinsic part of his personality that she understood, but had more tolerance for in herself.

"Firenze makes a lot of sense," she said quietly, referring back to the list. "Do you really think I can get him to speak at the Ministry as well?"

"You'll just have to go and talk to him, too. I suspect you can catch both him and Lupin on the same visit." Percy started to rise, smoothing out the creases in his robes as he got to his feet.

"Right, yes, that's actually a good idea. Kill two birds with one stone," she murmured absently, her thoughts still on how to convince Firenze to speak before the Wizengamot.

"Do what?" Percy paused, hand on the door and a very puzzled expression on his face.

Hermione looked up and smirked. "Sorry, love; Muggle expression."

"Ah," said Percy, nodding. For whatever reason, he never did seem to be able to remember those little foreign expressions of hers. "I suspect we'll see each other again before the end of the day." He started to exit but then suddenly turned with a smirk of his own. "And don't forget, it's Wednesday night, so no working late." One last wink and then he was gone.

Hermione held her smile in place until she was certain Percy was really on his way back to his office. His weekly wink, and little reminder that their night to set ambition aside and enjoy each other physically, no longer set the butterflies of anticipation to flutter in her stomach the way that it used when it was still new. Now it just annoyed her. Their careers kept them busy and consumed much of their time. So Percy had suggested they set aside a night for each other. This had sounded like a splendid idea to start, but it wasn't long before it was their only night.

This rigidity spilled over into other areas of their life as well. There were a lot of very good things about being in a relationship with Percy; in fact on paper it was practically a match made in heaven. They had many traits in common, both being organized and driven with strong, keen minds and even stronger wills. These were all things she adored about Percy. The differences between them lay in their motivation. It was hard to set oneself apart with older brothers like Charlie and Bill. She had seen Ron struggle with this as well, but instead of brooding in dark jealousy, Percy aimed for recognition beyond what his family could offer. It was an obsession that touched every area of their personal life. If they went to a certain restaurant to dine, she could bet a Ministry higher up had plans for the same establishment on the same night. If they took a tour of country manors and castles, the chances were high that a visiting dignitary would be joining them.

For Hermione, the goals were very different. She wanted recognition, of course, but not for its own sake. She wanted to leave the world a better place than she had found it - a world that treated not only Muggleborns with fairness and equality, but all creatures that came under the guidance and ruling of the Ministry. She was just as driven and single-minded in pursuit of a goal, but once it was achieved, she could put ambition aside and enjoy her life. Percy very rarely left his work at the office. At dinner each evening he would regale her with stories about his day in excruciating detail. She longed to have someone who would appreciate art, literature, or music without wondering if there was someone to impress with the knowledge.

Even this she could overlook, though. What relationship didn't have its problems? But his regimented ideals touched into even more personal areas, and that was much harder to ignore. It wasn't even so much that the sex itself was dissatisfying. His technique (and hers as well if she was being completely honest) had required a little honing in the beginning, but once they had figured out the basics of satisfying each other, they never went very far beyond it. Hermione found that the longer she was with him, the more she would like to see this changed. Unfortunately, Percy had little interest in discussing it. He was a strong man, a characteristic she valued, but his pride got in the way. The male ego, she had learned, was a very delicate thing, and something she had never been very adept at negotiating.

Truthfully, she was ready to move on. She had pursued Percy because at the time, he seemed perfect. After Ron, she'd needed someone to adore her and make her feel better. Percy had done that beautifully, but it had just gone on too long. He'd been her rebound man, and with him things were so comfortable, she just didn't see any reason to make a change. It wasn't fair to him at all, and for that she felt a heavy burden of guilt. She didn't love him, and likely never would. But then, she didn't think he loved her either. They didn't make each other unhappy, but neither did they have a passion for one another.

Hermione sighed heavily as she chewed the blue-stained tip of her quill, an old habit she had never been able to break. Moments like these always led her to a vague feeling of having overlooked something. Whatever it was, it was slippery, elusive, never holding still long enough for her to grasp it.

The following morning...
Sibiu, Romania

Hermione sat in a small cafe in Sibiu sipping tea, and watching a clock on the wall slowly tick the morning away. Each time the door swung open with the charming little bell chiming its welcome she would look up hopefully. So far each time it was only one of the cafe's patrons in to get hot coffee or tea, and perhaps something to nibble on.

Her plans were to pick up a guide here and then travel west into the heart of the Carpathians. She had fire-called Charlie the day before saying she would explain everything when she saw him in person. He had agreed reluctantly, and fortunately knew of a person that would be willing to bring her in. She had gotten this far by Apparating, and now she waited.

Of all the Weasleys, Charlie was the one she had the least exposure to. Percy had been confident in her ability to get him off the preserve to help with the campaign, but the fact that she would have to convince him at all had her worried. Charlie was known to have a knowledgeable opinion on many magical creatures, not just dragons. When the Ministry needed an expert, they often turned to him. Hermione knew this had quite a bit to do with Charlie's father recommending him, but what mattered was that his name was one they knew.

The door to the cafe opened again, letting in an elderly couple with a small blond child. The young boy, who Hermione guessed to be their grandson, bounced up to the counter and perused the selection of sweets. Hermione sighed and checked the clock again. A few minutes more and her guide would be late.

The problem for Hermione was that Charlie usually gave his views through correspondence. If he left the preserve at all, it was for holidays and family events, not to give his professional opinion. She already had Hagrid, but he wasn't as highly respected on account of his heritage. Change came slowly to wizards and Hermione was impatient. Percy was right; Charlie was key to her argument. But would he help her? That was the real question. He liked his solitude and his dragons, and might not appreciate being dragged before the Wizengamot when he could just as easily write it out for her, especially on such short notice. Hermione wanted the impact of Charlie himself to help strengthen her position. She also didn't want to give Umbridge any room to wiggle. That crafty old sow would surely attempt to cast doubt on Charlie's written statement, and a bit of parchment couldn't talk back, or explain in greater detail.

The door to the cafe opened again; this time, however, there was no beeline to the counter. The man in the doorway was a good forty years her senior. His face was whiskered and he had little tufts of hair shooting out of his ears. He walked into the cafe with a mild limp, and reminded her of a gnarled old tree stump as he looked around the small establishment. In one hand he held a photo, checking it against each individual until his eyes landed on her.

"Her- Herm- Herm-ni-yoni?"

Hermione nodded and smiled as she stood up. The man broke into a wide, gap-toothed grin, and began speaking rapidly in Romanian, of which she understood not a single word. Finally, apparently resigned that they weren't destined to communicate, the man sort of shrugged, and then patted himself on the chest.


Hermione pointed at him. "Nico?"

"Weasley?" Nico held up the picture for her to see, a picture of herself taken at the Burrow with Ron, Harry, Ginny, Remus and Sirius. She remembered that day very clearly. It wasn't very long after this that she had started to see Percy. In the photograph Ron kept looking away to laugh at something the twins were up to, and Ginny kept pinching him in the side so he would look into the camera. Remus played the straight man (which was a laugh because she was pretty sure he was gay) with a bland but pleasant expression, while Sirius held two fingers behind his head.

Sirius' other arm was wrapped around her waist, and he kept bumping Harry with his hip. They all looked so happy and carefree, Sirius most especially, finally a free man. It made her wistful and nostalgic for that first year after the war was over. Things were so different now. After Percy abandoned his family, Sirius never quite looked at him the same way. Ironic really, but Sirius' dislike for Percy stemmed from why he had rejected his family. It made Percy very uncomfortable. So much so that he even preferred she not spend much time around Sirius. Harry had mentioned once that Sirius had taken her absence personally, but there wasn't much she could do about it.

Nico cleared his throat a little, pulling her mind out of its reverie. He smiled when she looked up and turned the photograph over and handed it to her. There on the back in small messy scrawl was a short missive.

Hermione, the man with your picture is Nico Creangă. I've hired him to bring you in. Still have no idea what you're doing here but looking forward to seeing you. Charlie

Nico waited for her to finish reading, and then began speaking rapidly once again. Hermione shook her head to say she wasn't following a single blessed word. Nico spied her traveling bag, shrugged, and then picked it up. Hermione understood and followed Nico out.

Parked in the street was an ancient, slightly beat-up, violently orange Opel Rekord with a flaking paint job. Nico gestured proudly to it and then quickly tossed her bag into the back seat. He walked around the car and opened the front passenger side. The door swung open with a loud creak, and was slammed shut with a solid bang. Nico hurried around to the driver side and got in. When he turned the key, Hermione caught a glimpse of billowing blue-gray smoke out of the side mirror. The old auto chugged and wheezed and shuddered, but the engine refused to turn over. Hermione couldn't understand a word Nico said to the antique car, but she suspected the first part of his rant was cursing, the second half begging. She looked out the window to hide her amusement.

The car finally started with a terrific roar, belching a last black cloud out the tail pipe. Hermione jumped a little and squeaked with surprise. No Apparating or flying was allowed into the preserve so she supposed that this was how it would have to be. They started out of the town, the quaint red-roofed homes and city sights passing by as they sped into wilderness, the Rekord vibrating all the while like a leaf caught in a hurricane.

Nico kept up a steady stream of chatter as they headed west into the Retezat Mountains to a portion of Romania rarely seen by wizards and never by Muggles. Hermione watched the landscape change, their elevation rising higher and higher. The cars they passed on the way were few, and became even fewer as the mountains rose all around them.

It was a beautiful country. Hermione could easily see the appeal. The passing landscape gave her time to think. She tried to focus on what she would say to Charlie, but her mind kept drifting back to Percy and what, if anything, she should do. She was so caught up in viewing the forest and mountains, and her somewhat troubled thoughts, that she was genuinely surprised when the Rekord came to a shuddering stop.

Somehow the trip had passed without her noticing that the sun had set. The world was bathed in darkness save what light the Rekord's headlamps shone on it. There was a tiny, thatched-roof hut with a single candle burning in the window. Flanked on either side of the hut was a tall wrought-iron fence that fled away into the darkness. Nico said something to her, gesturing with his hands that suggested she keep her seat. As he got out of the car, a pair exited the little hut. The two men walked over to the car and one of them bent down to peer in the window.

"You just going to stay in there all night?"

Hermione shook her head and grinned. Charlie opened the door and helped her out, pulling her into a warm hug. Muscular arms tightened briefly around her, and then let go. He stepped back to get a better look, though it was far too dark for him to really see her, even with the light the Rekord's lamps provided.

"I half thought you'd change your mind. Never thought to see you out of the city, or your comfortable office at the Ministry. Hope you're up to roughing it a bit." Charlie grinned impishly as he took her bag from Nico. The two men spoke in Romanian for a moment, stealing her opportunity for a retort. She had camped out with no food or water during the war; a little trip into the mountains was nothing compared to that.

When they were done speaking, Nico grinned at her, said something she couldn't understand, and then gave a little wave in parting. She smiled back and watched as he got back into his beat-up orange beast.

"Hermione, this is my friend Patrick; he minds the guard house for us." Hermione smiled at the other man and shook his hand as Nico finally got the Rekord started with a bang, testing her nerves not to jump and squeal. Her pride demanded that she prove herself more than a silly girl to be frightened by a few loud noises.

"Lovely to meet you, Patrick," she said. The wand-light reflected off the whites of his eyes in the near pitch black, the only bit of him she could really see. "It must get lonely in your little cabin there."

"Nah." Patrick winked at her. "Dragons beat my mother trying to set me up with all of her friend's daughters. Isn't that right, Charlie boy?"

Hermione cut a wry grin at Charlie, wondering just how much truth there was in Patrick's taunt.

"It's a bit late," said Charlie, amused. "Perhaps we should get you settled and in the morning I can show you around, and you can finally tell me why you're here."

"That sounds perfect." Hermione breathed a sigh of relief, tired from the road and looking forward to a bed. Patrick offered his 'good evening' and then she and Charlie walked through a gate in the iron fence.

What she hadn't been able to see in the dark, but came closer into view as they walked, was a small village of little huts. With Charlie's wand illuminating the night around them she was able to see that they were wooden with thatched roofs just like the guard house, only a little larger. They passed several of these darkened homes until one came into view that had a few candles glowing warmly through the windows.

"That's me there." Charlie pointed out the dimly lit hut.

Once inside Hermione looked around at the spare little house. There was a threadbare couch with a small table beside on which rested a single candle and a leather-bound book. Next to the tiny kitchenette was an abused-looking table where a pair of candles burned. Between the candles was a bowl containing two green apples, the skins of which had wrinkled a bit. Two metal chairs with meager cushions were pushed into the table. The cushions had a few small tears that no one had bothered to try and mend. Just beyond the kitchenette was a short hallway with two doors.

"You can take my bed," said Charlie, pointing to one of the doors first, and then the other. "Bathroom's just there. I'll take the couch."

"No, I couldn't ask you to do that, Charlie."

"Nonsense." Charlie was already walking back to the bedroom with her bag. "I would never hear the end of it from Mum."

Hermione sighed and nodded, too tired to really argue the point. Inside the bedroom was a narrow bed with a single pillow, another low table with a candle, and a small dresser.

"See you in the morning, Hermione. I can't wait to hear what this is all about."

Hermione gave him a resigned smile as he closed the door, still feeling bad about putting him out of his own bed.

That next morning...
The Dragon Reserve

The dawn in her window, and the delicious smell of food being prepared, woke Hermione the following morning. She yawned a little and stretched before getting out of bed and going over to the window. It was quite early. The sun was still hidden below the horizon, painting the sky with a fantastic array of yellow and orange. It was also very, very cold.

With a change of clothes and toiletries in hand, Hermione opened the door. Standing just on the other side was Charlie with his hand poised in the air, ready to knock. Hermione blinked, breath caught in her throat on sight of him. Of all the Weasley boys, Charlie was probably the huskiest. From what she could see, not an ounce of it was fat. The morning chill that had her shivering didn't seem to bother him. Wearing only a pair of jeans and a grin, Charlie looked good enough to eat. An elaborate tattoo of a dragon decorated his right arm and extended down his well-defined chest, intriguing her so much that she had to remind herself it would be rude to touch, not to mention unseemly. This reaction shocked and surprised her. He was so very, very male, a stark contrast to Percy who, while not androgynous by any means, was also not quite this picture of flagrant masculine beauty.

To her horror, his grin turned cheeky as he caught her giving him a careful once-over.

"I see you're already up." Much to her relief, he didn't comment on her blatant stare. She was certain that would have killed her right there on the spot. It was bad enough that she knew her hair must be doing fantastic things without so much as a comb put to it yet. That didn't seem to bother him though, as he brazenly returned her look.

"Y-Yes." Take a hold of yourself, Granger! Hermione willed her voice steady and clear. "Just going to dress and freshen up a bit."

"Breakfast is ready, and after I'll take you on the tour." Before returning to the kitchen he added a wink to the smug grin, slaughtering a tiny piece of her pride. As he sauntered away she got a lovely view of his arse, hugged close in worn-out denim. Hermione bit back a girlish sigh and entered the bathroom.

Twenty minutes later, she was treated to a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast and coffee. Twenty minutes after that they were out of the hut and heading for a trail that led into the nearby forest.

"Now, I think it's time I hear all about the reason for this mystery visit." The pine needles crunched quietly beneath their feet, the fresh air crisp and scented of evergreen.

"I think you know of my work, Charlie, what I've been trying to accomplish?" she asked as they passed a line of trees into the forest.

"Sure, but what has that got to do with me?" The tall pines blocked out the sun, bathing the woods in soft shade.

"I made my final presentation, but Umbridge threw in a last requirement. I have to produce testimony in order for my proposals to go to vote. You can do that for me, can't you?" The stillness of the forest closed in around them as the trail narrowed.

"Yes, I do that all the time for Dad," said Charlie, watching the path ahead, "I would have done the same for you, and I think you know that. You've come for something more."

Hermione paused her steps. Charlie was a bit more direct than she was used to. If he realized that he was lacking in the area of social niceties he gave no indication in his expression or demeanor. She could understand that though. He was a man who spent all of his time in the company of dragons and other men in wild and unforgiving country. It struck her as a refreshing change from talking in circles and deciphering meaning in the vague hints and clues that were standard fare for someone so closely linked to the Wizengamot as she. "Yes, I have come for more, Charlie. I want you to speak to the court in person."

"What? Why?" Charlie turned sharply to look at her directly. "Why is that necessary?"

"Charlie," she said earnestly, "I've spent my whole career working for this, and I am so close. I've got Hagrid, but..."

"Right, half-giant, won't go over so well." Charlie sighed and ran a hand through his long red hair. "I don't know, Hermione, makes me nervous thinking about getting up in front of those old codgers." Charlie ground the toe of his boot into the path.

"What's this? Charlie Weasley, big bad dragon tamer is afraid of a few old men?" Hermione smirked with a hand on her hip.

Charlie chuckled, taking her tease in good nature. A little tightness he had been holding in his shoulders sloughed off, and an easy grin quirked at the corners of his mouth. "Say, tell me something of home. How are things between you and my brother? Everything going alright there?" he asked, getting more personal than she was really prepared for.

"What?" Hermione blinked a few times in surprise, his complete non-sequitur throwing her off guard.

"Never mind, forget I said anything." He turned his back to her and started walking again. The infamous Weasley flush crawl up his neck, and that tightness resettled through his shoulders. Clearly, Charlie had lost some of his finer social skills out here. His question was more than just a matter of directness, it was really quite awkward. "Who else do you have going before the Wizengamot?" he added quickly, probably hoping to get past his faux pas.

"Firenze," she said, feeling a bit turned around as he caught her off guard once again with how quickly he changed directions in a conversation. "If I can get him, though, that isn't without its complications."

"Why is that?" he queried, intoning genuine puzzlement.

"Oh, come on, Charlie. You know very well that most wizards have never laid eyes on a living, breathing centaur. Their opinions are handed down from years of institutionalized discrimination."

Charlie chuckled. "Well, good luck getting him to go before the Ministry, but I can tell you right now you've got it all wrong."

"What do I have wrong?" Hermione frowned. She had thought this through very carefully.

"Well, not all wrong," he amended. "You're right that most of them have never met a live centaur."

"So what have I got wrong, then?" The hand was back on her hip, though not a playful tease this time. What was there to consider besides the backward mentality heralding from the Dark Ages that seemed to inhabit the brains of most of those on the court?

Charlie was laughing again. "Wow, you really don't like it when someone disagrees with you, do you?" They had drifted a bit apart, with Charlie a few paces ahead of her. He turned, and took a step in her direction.

Hermione opened her mouth to speak, but found she couldn't refute what he was saying. It was true, she knew it was. She was famous for it. She took a position and clung to it for dear life, like in sixth year when Harry suspected Draco of being a Death Eater. Harry had been right, and a high price had almost been paid because only one person had taken him seriously. Not Ron, not Remus, and not herself; only Sirius had listened, and it was due to his persistent inquiries that Dumbledore had lived long enough to see the end of the war. Harry would only argue his side of things, never confront her over her obstinacy.

Charlie had just turned the tables on her, and he had done it as easy as breathing. Only one other person had ever challenged her about this trait, using it to tease her and wheedle his way under her skin until she was ready to kill him, or possibly shag him; maybe both. Hermione blinked, wondering where that had come from.

Charlie took another step closer, breaking her thought process. Hermione felt her mouth go dry. She was attracted to him, and clearly he was attracted to her as well. But this was Charlie! Percy's brother! Hermione took a step back, if there was a line she wouldn't cross, this was surely it.

Charlie shook his head, a sad smile on his lips. "I'm not... I wouldn't, not to one of my brothers or... I just... I guess I don't get it. He's not the one everybody thought you'd end up with, you know? You two are so much alike; don't you get bored?"

Hermione was very uncomfortable with Charlie directly asking her the very question she had been circling around for months. She and Percy made sense, and Ron was very old news. So what if Percy was a little predictable? Another word for that was reliable.

"That's none of your business, Charlie," she said, her voice low. "Now- now what did you mean when you said that I had it wrong?"

"Right." Charlie nodded. "Sorry, Hermione." He gestured to the path, a suggestion that they continue walking. "What I meant was that because most wizards have never met a live centaur, that can work in your favor."

"How so?" Hermione looked ahead down the path and could an opening a little way ahead.

"I know Firenze," he replied. "Can you imagine it? Seeing a centaur speak as eloquently as Firenze, when most of them have never heard one speak at all? It'll surprise many of them, most of them actually."

"It is still a risky move, though, Charlie." Hermione frowned. "In fact most of my moves are risky. I've written to Remus as well, and I'm certain he'll agree. I can't think of anyone who can speak as well as he, but that won't stop them from holding his being a werewolf against him."

Charlie took a deep breath, his brow furrowed. Just ahead the canopy-darkened path was bathed in light. Charlie put his hand on her shoulder and raised a finger to his lips.

"It's perfectly safe," he whispered, "but there is no sense in alerting her to our presence."

"Alerting who?" she whispered back, but took his cue and minded her steps, taking care not to crack a twig.

"Her." Charlie dropped the hand from her shoulder to just in front of her, halting her steps just inside the line of trees and directing her to crouch down. With his other hand he pointed to something beyond their position. Hermione's gaze followed and then she quietly gasped.

Between them and the object of his interest was another high, wrought-iron fence, fortified by a slight shimmer which she assumed to be very powerful wards. Nestled into a craggy cliff a good five hundred meters away was a dragon breathing fire on a clutch of eggs. Her green scales glistened in the morning light, the deep emerald breaking out into bright prismatic flashes. Each egg was heated to a dull orange glow, which got retouched as the heat dissipated.

"Oh, Charlie," breathed Hermione. "She's gorgeous."

He nodded with a small, proud smile.

"These mothers are tireless. She won't get much sleep until they're ready to hatch. Once they do she'll go feed and the father will take over for a while."

"Do they ever work together?"

"Oh, yeah. Once there is too much work feeding a hungry brood they'll have to. But dragons are fairly solitary, and even mated pairs don't always get along so well. It takes a common effort to force them together, and to get along. Even then, it's mostly that they're just too tired to quibble."

Hermione chuckled a little. "Not much for romance, then?"

"Not really, no," said Charlie, smiling. He started to rise, turning back along the path as he did. As she rose to follow, something in her jacket pocket prodded sharply.

"Oh!" It was the picture Nico had given her. "Here, this is yours."

Charlie took it from her with a small frown. "You keep it," he said, handing it back.

"But it's yours," she protested. The reminder that she and Sirius had once been friends wasn't a comfortable one. Though he could at times be infuriating, she missed his unique companionship. Her feelings for him were complicated and deep, and it hurt more than she cared to remember that they were no longer close. At least she had never allowed for the folly of believing he could return her interest.

"I know, but I want you to have it," he said. He went quiet for a moment as a look of heavy concentration fell over him. He took a deep breath, scratched at his neck, and then gave her a cautious smile. "You know, you and Sirius used to get along. From what I hear from my sister and dad, that isn't the case any longer."

"Sirius doesn't approve of my dating choices," she said sharply. "Which is really none of his business, and also rather rude. It makes Percy very uncomfortable."

"I'll bet it does," said Charlie under his breath, but she heard it all the same. She jerked her head to catch his expression, but his eyes were focused on some point down the path. "During the war, before his name was cleared, Sirius worked closely with me outside of Britain's borders."

"Yes, I remember hearing him talk about that," she said stiffly.

"We got to be friend. We still are." The stillness of the forest settled around them once again, forcing their voices down.

"Well, I can see how that would happen," she said, wondering where in the hell he was going with this. "Are you trying to tell me something, Charlie? Because I really don't know why we're talking about Sirius. He and I used to be friends, then I started dating Percy and suddenly we weren't friends any longer."

"And you never asked yourself why that is?"

"I know why. Sirius thought Percy was a prat for believing the Ministry over his parents, and Sirius is petty enough to hold a grudge. Never mind that he left his own family for ideological reasons. Percy may have been on the wrong side, but you would think if there was one person who could understand, it would be Sirius."

"That's what you think?" he exclaimed sharply. "Hermione, that is not what Sirius' problem with Percy is about."

"What else could it be?" she asked, and then added. "And I still don't know why we're talking about Sirius and his problems with me."

"That picture you're holding is why," said Charlie. "You know, I get what happened with you and Percy."

"I feel like I need a flow chart to keep up with your trains of thought," said Hermione. "How does one thing relate to another? Are you going somewhere with all of this?"

"Hell, I don't know," said Charlie quietly. He studied his boots for a moment. "It's none of my business, really. Not even sure why I opened my mouth in the first place."

"What did you mean," began Hermione, not sure herself why she was inviting this invasion into her private life, "when you said you get what happened with Percy and me?"

"I just think... I just think that what felt right didn't make sense to you, so you latched onto the first bloke who made perfect sense. But how fair is that really to Percy?"

"What felt right?" she asked. "I don't even know what you mean by that." Hermione sighed unhappily. "Look, we're not unhappy, Charlie, but you're right. Quite frankly, I don't know how you see all of this from Romania, but you're right. And it isn't fair to either of us."

"Don't you deserve more? Doesn't Percy?"

Hermione dropped her eyes.

"Just think about it, Hermione. Think about Percy. You're a good woman; I just think you've made the wrong choice for all the right reasons."

"Actually, I've been mulling it over for some time now. We're comfortable, but-"

"Yeah," said Charlie. "Too much alike is the problem. You both need someone to shake your world up a little, make things interesting, and make you laugh once in awhile."

They walked along the path together in companionable silence. She still had no idea why he'd brought up Sirius, but she didn't really want to talk about him anymore than necessary. He had been a special friend that left a hole in her heart. Even if leaving Percy would bring him back to her as a friend, she wasn't sure she wanted a friend as fickle as that.

"I'll do it," said Charlie.

Hermione cocked her head curiously. "Hmm?"

"I'll do it. I'll come speak for you," he explained.

"Oh, Charlie, thank you," she said sincerely.

"I don't actually mind that much and you just reminded that it had been awhile since I'd seen some old friends."

Two days later..
Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place

After she and Percy talked, Hermione wanted more than anything to visit with Harry. She couldn't talk to Ron about his brother, she just couldn't. He still loved to tease her about opposites not always attracting. His familiar taunt was more than she could take at the moment. Harry, however, would listen, and understand, and let her cry on his shoulder.

Hermione Flooed to Harry's home, and called out a few times but it was apparent there was no one home. To pass the time she took the stairs down to the kitchen and made a cup of tea. Though Remus had recently moved out, and Sirius had long since left his childhood home, this house was still the hub of their closest friends and relations. She wouldn't have to wait long for someone to pass through the kitchen door, and even if it wasn't Harry, she could be equally certain it wouldn't be Percy.

In the quiet of the old house, now restored to its former glory and redecorated to suit the tastes of the owner and his wife, Hermione pondered over her recent experiences. She fervently hoped that Percy would find that someone special to complete him. They would remain friends, which she was glad for, but the truth was that she was relieved, if a bit sad. Percy worked well as an ally, as someone to back her up because she was just as driven and committed as he. She wasn't sure what she wanted, and for now was content to simply reflect.

A siren wailing in the distance interrupted her thoughts and musings as someone came through the front door. The sound drifted down, clear for a moment and then was muffled once again. The whole house shook as the door was slammed forcefully.

"HARRY! HARRY, WHERE ARE YOU!" boomed a loud, deep voice, followed by stomping footfalls.

Great, thought Hermione sourly. Probably the least sympathetic person she knew had just come through the door in her hour of need.

"Down here!" she called out. "In the kitchen."

More heavy footfalls, and then Sirius flew through the kitchen doorway, his eyes wild and troubled. Hanging loose around his face, glossy black hair framed a square jaw that was darkened with a day's worth of stubble. He looked around the small underground room swiftly and then frowned at her.

"Where's Harry? I need to see him right away!" barked Sirius, as though it were her fault Harry wasn't in the kitchen.

"I don't know, he's not here," she replied. Annoyance with his demeanor was her first reaction, but was quickly crowded out by worry. "What's wrong? Has something happened?"

"Something awful." Sirius' upper lip curled a little, and he looked like he had just tasted something foul. "I caught Remus kissing Snivellus!"

Hermione blinked. "I'm sorry... what?" This was hardly news to be in a state over. Unexpected perhaps, but to each his own in her opinion.

"That's right," he answered, mistaking the reason for her confusion. "Most revolting thing I have ever seen!"

Hermione narrowed her eyes at him. Of all the childish, idiotic, homophobic...

"What? You don't find something inherently wrong with that?" Sirius backed up to the counter and folded his arms across his chest.

"You are such a child!" she said, her voice shrill with irritation. "There is nothing at all wrong with two men having... relations."

Sirius sneered at her. "Relations," he mimicked, saying it delicately and in deliberate mockery. "You think I'm this upset because of that? I've never cared that Moony was bent!"

"Jealous, then?" She dropped her eyes back to her tea to keeping from laughing at her own jibe.

"Right little comedian, aren't you?" She glanced up in time to catch his dramatic eye roll.

"Honest question is all," she replied. Her amusement was short-lived. Their familiar banter made her chest ache just a little, even with the immaturity he was displaying.

"It's Snape, Hermione, greasy, dirty, evil Snape." he clarified.

"He's not evil, Sirius," she said, moving away from sparring for its own sake. That felt too normal, too right, and as a result hurt too much for her to continue. "He made some very wrong choices, but he was young. I know you know what that's like."

For a moment, she thought she was successful in getting through to him. He was quiet, though not still. His jeans and the robes he wore over them rustled as he paced restlessly.

"How could Remus do that? I feel like I don't know him at all," he said finally, sounding forlorn and disillusioned.

"Oh, honestly!" After the day she'd had, she had absolutely no patience for this. "Why can't you be happy for him? He obviously wants this; so what if you don't like Severus? You don't have to, he does." She almost added a word about Percy and herself but bit it back. That was over now and there was no sense stirring him up over it.

Sirius shot her a filthy look, his eyes raking over her. "What are you doing here anyway? Shouldn't you be at work with Percy? Or getting ready for a night out with boring Ministry higher-ups?"

Hermione looked away from him, and down to her tea. His disdain fairly rang through his tone and it stung quite a bit. She remembered discovering another side to him, witty and interesting with a sharp mind that she hadn't known in the time before the war. She was more used to the black looks he threw at her now, but that only made it a little less painful.

"Am I not allowed to visit my friend, Sirius?" she asked coolly, still not looking up, not caring to see his sneer.

"Of course you are." He took a step away from the counter, and toward her. "It's just not like you to leave the office so early in the day."

"How do you even know what I'm like?" Hermione finally turned back to him, eyes hard. "It's not as though the trifles of my 'boring life' are of any interest to you anymore."

"I know a hell of a lot more than you think I do," he said, a note of bitterness there that she couldn't quite understand.

"Well, then, let's hear it, shall we?" she said. This was more conversation than they had shared in months, and a big change from their usually stiff and polite dialogue. She was in no mood to fight with him, but this fight was a long time in coming.

"Never mind," he said softly. "I should probably keep my opinions to myself."

Hermione was surprised to see him back down, but then realized she should be used to him surprising her by now. Nevertheless, she couldn't resist one last dig at him. "That's what I thought."

"You don't want to hear my opinion," he retorted darkly.

"Oh, I think I know enough," she said. She'd had it; if he wanted a fight, she'd give it to him. "You dislike Percy because of what he did to his family, and you dislike me because in your opinion I made a bad choice."

"You don't know anything," he said dangerously.

"I just hope you don't do to Remus what you did to me," she said, ignoring the ice in his tone. "You've been friends too long to let his choice of partner get between you."

And then he surprised her again as he started to laugh. "You know, I've lost so much in my life, it really shouldn't have come as a surprise to lose one more thing."

"You'd let go of your friendship with Remus over who he is sleeping with?"

"Kissing," he said quickly. "Please don't give me mental images I can't handle, that was bad enough, and no, I wouldn't."

"I don't understand. I thought you just said that-"

"Like I said," he interrupted. "You don't know anything."

Hermione could feel the sting of tears, and wished she were alone. It hurt more than it should that she wasn't important enough to him to keep around when she made a decision he didn't like, but it did. It hurt like hell. She willed herself not to cry and resolved that this was just a bad day to come seeking solace with Harry.

"What are you doing here in the middle of the afternoon?" he asked. "You never said."

Hermione stood up with teacup and saucer in hand and walked over to the sink. Her lower lip trembled, but she did not cry. He'd gotten good at that when they were friends, picking up on the gist of her unspoken thoughts. It didn't surprise her that he could still manage it. She stood there at the sink, slowly washing her two dishes for something to do without offering him any sort of response.

Still behind her, leaning up against a counter, she heard Sirius sigh.

"You really want to hear my opinion?" he asked, his voice low and a little rough. "Then fine, Hermione, here it is. I understand why Percy made sense to you. You saw everything in him that you see in yourself, all that order and control and ambition. I'm sure he made perfect sense to you. I guess it seemed to me like you sold out your heart in favor of getting ahead.

"I remember," he continued, a surprising amount of iron in his delivery. "It was so sudden, one day you're around all the time, teasing, joking and-" Sirius paused. "Percy was just there, and achingly obvious. Your interest surprised the hell out of him, out of everyone."

"After Ron-"

"I know," he snapped. "Like I said, I remember. I always thought you just needed a little more time. You and Ron were the big expected thing, like Harry and Ginny. I was so proud of you both for realizing that a childhood friendship and crush doesn't necessarily mean you were destined to have a life together."

"We would have killed each other inside of a year," she said. She didn't need to turn around to know that he was grinning that mischievous smirk of his.

Sirius chuckled. "No, you would have killed him in his sleep and transfigured the body into something easy to lose."

Hermione gave a watery laugh, still so close to tears. Here was her friend, frank and honest, never pulling his punches until the day he removed himself from her life. She had missed him so much.

"Ron wasn't the only thing I was-" Hermione stopped to take a deep breath. "He wasn't the only thing I was running away from. I mean that was hard enough, you know? We'd been friends too long to let that go because it didn't work out. For a long time I thought Percy was my rebound man from Ron, but there was someone else, someone who didn't return my feelings. I think I needed Percy to help me get over that more than anything else."

"How do you know he didn't return your feelings? Did you ever let him know?"

"I couldn't," she replied. "He didn't see me that way. I'm sure of it."

"You never know," he said softly. "He might have surprised you."

"He usually does," she said. "But not about this." She cleared her throat. "That still doesn't answer why you abandoned our friendship when Percy and I got together. You said you wouldn't do that to Remus, so why was it easy to do it to me?"

"If you know all this, why are you still with Percy?" he asked, evading her question with a question of his own.

"That's why I'm here, actually," she replied. "I broke it off with him today and was hoping for a shoulder to cry on. Instead I get you breaking me down to my atoms. Thanks for that, by the way," she added sarcastically. "I feel loads better."

"When?" His black boots scuffed against the stone floor as he pushed off the counter.

"Today, earlier, I went to see him because... well, because a friend showed me it was the right thing to do." Composed, she finally turned to face him. "You know, if you were a real friend, you might have said something to me gently. We used to get along, Sirius; being ugly to me because you don't approve of my choice in men is hardly productive."

"I couldn't," he replied, stepping back. His eyes focused intently on the floor.

"Why not?" she pressed, walking back to the table. "You don't think I want to be happy? That I want what everyone wants? I just thought... I just thought that..."

"You thought what?" he asked softly, ignoring her question of 'why not.' He hopped up onto the counter in one fluid move.

"It did make sense on paper," she admitted with a look down at the floor. "I thought that because Percy and I were so similar, maybe it would work out."

"You just never took chemistry into account." Sirius shook his head.

Hermione folded her arms across her chest. "You certainly are observant of me, aren't you? Why is that? Neither Harry nor Ron has given the situation this much thought." Hermione looked at him, really looked at him, trying to see what she could observe, see if there were chinks in his armor. Their eyes met, and in his was something resigned and a little bit sad.

"Ron, no, but..." He scratched his chin self-consciously. "Harry and I have discussed it a time or two."

"Really? Great, glad I've provided the entertainment," she muttered. Her cheeks warmed with the flush of embarrassment.

"No, no, not like that. That isn't what I mean." He fidgeted a little, and then asked, "What friend?"


"You said a friend helped you to see that you and Percy weren't right for each other. What friend?"

"I went to see Charlie," she replied, and then paused as things slowly started to add up. "You know he was quite keen to discuss you, though he never would say why."

Sirius ignored her last, only addressing the bit about going to see Charlie. "That business with Umbridge, yeah? Did he agree?"

"Yes," she replied, but that wasn't what her mind was focused on. The clarity her revelation brought, fitting Charlie's vague hints into her previous friendship with Sirius; it all made so much sense. How had she missed this? Had she purposefully not wanted to see? It was a bit startling, shocking even. "We were falling in love, weren't we, you and I? Just slowly, in our own way."

Sirius didn't say anything for a full minute. "I had thought so, yes, but then..."

"I thought it was all on my end," she said honestly.

"No," he replied. "It wasn't. You were a little hard to read, or so I thought. With everything going on in your life, I just thought it was better not to press you. I was willing to wait until you were ready. I was in love with you, I would have given you all the time you needed for it to be right."

"The pomegranate," she said with sudden realization. "What Charlie said, and... and your arm, your arm around my waist."

"And then Percy walked in," he replied. "Next thing I knew, you were dating him."

"Sirius, if I had known... I loved you then," she said. "I love you still."

Sirius breathed one short, little laugh, and then closed the distance between them, pushing her up against the table, his thighs, chest, the whole length of him pressing against her. "I missed you so," he murmured. "I know I was an arse, but I just couldn't stand to see you with him, couldn't understand why it wasn't me."

"I missed you, too," she said, surprising herself with what a relief it was to tell him.

Lips, rough and chapped, claimed hers, the short, stiff stubble of a day's growth scraping deliciously against her skin. With one arm around her waist he pulled her up tight and close, his other hand sinking into her hair, controlling her neck to suit his pleasure. She opened to him, his tongue invading her mouth greedily. Little whimpers of pleasure escaped her throat, as her own hands slid up his firm chest, fingers twining through his hair.

"Hermione," he rasped, drawing away. His eyes were troubled as they searched hers for a moment. "I wanted you for so long, but if you're not sure about what you want..."

"I'm sure," she whispered back. "I just never knew."

He kissed her again, hungry and sure, pulling her even closer and brazenly grinding his pelvis against hers. His need, hard and hot, ground deliciously against her as he rutted openly and unashamedly.

"I want you," he said, somewhat unnecessarily. He had already made that clear.

"Where?" she asked breathlessly.

"Now," he growled, tugging her robes up in attempt to get them off of her. "Right here."

"But, we can't, what if-"

"No one's here, Hermione," he persisted, grinning victoriously as he managed to get the robes over her head. "Oh, thank Merlin for small mercies. You're wearing a skirt."

"What?" she asked, but understood as he dropped to his knees in front of her.

"I need to taste you, been fantasizing too long. I want to know." His fingers ghosted along her thighs and up under her skirt. He pulled at her knickers, drawing them down, patiently at first. When she closed her legs in modesty, he snarled and simply ripped her knickers off, leaving a painful red mark on her skin. "No one is going to see you but me," he said impatiently, like it should be obvious.

"Sirius, this is-"

"What? Risky?" he asked, his mouth crooked up in smug grin, even as his hands slid between her knees to push her legs open.

"Yes," she whimpered half-heartedly. She could feel his warm breath puffing close to her sex. It was almost too much, standing here in Harry's kitchen with Sirius kneeling in front of her. His expression was unyielding, and she wanted so much to just let herself get swept away.

He nuzzled at her thigh, leaving wet, open kisses that burned against her flesh. "You don't want to tell me no, Hermione, so don't. Let me do this, let me taste you."

With her last defenses easily stripped away by his wicked mouth, and by his voice and words that beckoned her to just get on his ride and enjoy herself, she swallowed and nodded. "Okay," she breathed.

He spared her one last smirk before pressing his face between her legs. Her fingers curled around the edge of the table, gripping hard to hold her steady. Sirius pushed at her knees with insistent hands until her legs were spread enough that he could fully access her. A shuddering breath slipped from her lips at the first feel of warm, wet tongue and lips exploring her most private of places. There was nothing tentative about the gesture as he greedily took what he so clearly wanted.

Moving closer, he pulled her hips forward as he worked his way back. His tongue slid all along her slick heat, and then lapped at her entrance before simply plunging in. It was nothing she had ever felt before, the searing warmth of a tongue just inside her entrance, and the brush of coarse facial hair against her inner thighs. Her breath came in short gasps and quiet moans, leaving her feeling wanton and exposed.

Sirius himself was by no means quiet, his deeper groans vibrated along her tender flesh, and up through her body. She could feel his breath, gasped out harshly as he exhaled when he could, so intent upon his task his own respiration became a secondary concern. He moved again, this time coming forward a little, replacing his tongue with a finger that slid in all the way up to the knuckle. Another finger joined the second as his tongue found her tight sensitive bundle and lapped repetitively, sending small tremors of pleasure along every nerve. When a third finger joined the others, he was suckling her gently, the small, stiff nub held firmly between his lips. Her gasps and moans turned into a soft chant, his name lifted up like a benediction as her climax approached.

The only thing holding her steady were the elbows she had locked in place and the hands that held tight to the table. Sirius did not relent, but his free arm wrapped around her leg to provide her with some support should she fall. He pumped his other arm steadily, the fingers inside rubbing the same spot over and over, while his tongue flicked at her as he suckled.

"I'm-" she squeaked out. "Oh, god! Sirius!"

The pressure low in her body, tight and hot, released in long, intense waves of pleasure, a flash of light bursting behind closed eyes. She could feel her body tighten and squeeze around the fingers inside of her as she trembled. Sirius slowed his ministrations, helping her to ride out every last surge. He drew away finally, bringing a hand up to her hip, grabbing hold and keeping her upright. She opened her eyes to find him gazing at her with warm and steady regard, and looking just a little bit pleased with himself.

"That was-"

Hermione was interrupted with the sound of the front door opening and the voices of several people engaged in an animated, if somewhat heated, discussion. Sirius threw Hermione's robes to her and swiftly pocketed her ruined knickers. He gave her a somewhat sheepish smile.

"Sorry about that; got impatient."

Hermione just nodded; there wasn't really time to talk about what just happened. She hurried to put on and straighten her robes as the voices got nearer. Sirius had gotten to his feet, and was washing his hands at the sink, splashing a little cold water on his face.

Snape spilled into the kitchen looking livid, with Remus following close behind. His expression was that of patience turning quickly into exasperation. Just behind him were Harry and Ginny, and they were all trying to talk over each other.

Hermione gave Sirius a very pointed look. He had left out that he'd done anything about what he'd witnessed. His returning grin was thoroughly unrepentant.

"I thought I'd find you here," snarled Snape. "Come to whine to your godson about things that aren't any of your business?"

"Severus," said Remus quietly. Sirius pulled a face at the tenderness implicit in his tone.

Harry watched Sirius nervously, and looked ready to throw himself between the two men should he need to. Ginny on the other hand couldn't take her eyes off Hermione.

"How was Romania?" she asked, and threw a very significant look at Sirius. Hermione frowned; those Weasleys really were a gossipy bunch.

"Enlightening," said Hermione. There wasn't much point in denying what would soon be obvious. Demonstrative to the very end, there was little chance Sirius was going to let this moment pass without staking his claim.

"Remus," said Sirius expansively, "if men who never bathe or wash their hair is what does it for you, who I am to judge?" He took a step toward Hermione, wearing a filthy grin, while the rest of the kitchen braced for the explosion.

"Oh, so very clever," snapped Snape, his sallow skin whitening with rage. "Get some new material."

"If you bathed I might," returned Sirius, and then added pompously, "Hygiene, you see, dear Snivelly, is important in preventing the spread of social diseases. I'm just doing the public a service."

Remus groaned, while Harry insinuated himself between Sirius and Snape. The latter had taken a step forward and was reaching for his wand. Sirius held his ground, and started to reach for his own wand as well.

"Sirius," said Hermione gently, "it is Remus' choice; we just talked about this. You don't have to like Severus, only Remus does. Can't you be a little happy that your friend found someone?" The whole kitchen watched in shocked and comedic fascination as she stepped in front of Sirius and lay her hand on his that was reaching for his wand.

Sirius' fierce expression gentled at her touch, his eyes softening into something tender and warm as she filled his range of vision, reaching up on her toes to place a kiss on his mouth.

"This has got to be the strangest day ever," said Harry. "What the hell is going on here? Hermione, what's this all about?" She turned to face him, but his eyes were glued on Sirius and there was an almost hopeful expression on his face.

"I'm sure that's pretty obvious," she answered lightly. "Percy and I broke it off today; it hadn't been working out for some time, actually. I'd had feelings for Sirius, but no idea he returned them. It's not that complicated when you get right down to it." Harry's gaze was turned on her now in utter disbelief. "Close your mouth, Harry. That's not attractive on anyone," she added smartly.

"Now," said Hermione turning back to Sirius. "Do you think you can be civil long enough for us to get out of here unharmed? I think we have some things to talk about."

"Yeah," he replied, his voice breaking a little over the word, his pupils bleeding into the grey of his irises. He cleared his throat. "Yeah, I can manage that."

Hermione took a deep breath and turned back to their audience. "Ginny, we'll talk soon. Harry, it's all going to be fine." She lifted her eyes to Remus' which were sparkling with amusement behind Snape's back, and was giving Sirius a very knowing look. She had long believed those two could practically communicate by telepathy, and if she wasn't mistaken, Remus had just called Sirius 'whipped'. At least by the look of it, anyway.

"Remus, Severus, congratulations, I for one am glad you found each other." Remus smiled his thanks, but Snape looked even more confused than Harry had been.

"Am I to understand, Miss Granger, that you have taken full leave of your senses and are taking up with this buffoon?"

"You don't have to like him, Severus," said Remus quietly in Snape's ear, echoing Hermione's earlier words, "only Hermione does."

"She was one of your students as well, Remus," said Snape. "Aren't you the smallest bit concerned that she is being preyed upon by a man twice her age?"

Behind her Sirius snarled, and drew a breath to speak. Hermione gave his hand a squeeze, but feared it would make little difference.

"Hermione hasn't been a student for some time now, Severus. I don't think that is the situation at all, and neither do you." What Remus didn't say, but was clear in his tone was, 'and please don't forget that Sirius is my friend as well.'

But the quiet admonishment seemed to work. Severus lifted his chin as he dropped his wand hand to his side. Proud, but apparently obedient as well. Hermione squeezed Sirius' hand again, and felt his breath on her neck as he sighed. A little stunned with their success, Hermione looked at Remus. He in turn gave her a little wink.

"Didn't I hear you say you had things to talk about?" asked Remus lightly. "You'd best be on your way, then."

Hermione smiled, and then tugged at Sirius' arm. "Let's go," she whispered.

The Wizangamot

Kingsley banged his gavel against the podium.

"Madam Umbridge, you are out of order!" His deep bass boomed with authority in the circular chamber.

Umbridge schooled her expression of loathing into one that was more appropriate for addressing the Minister of Magic. She straightened her fluffy pink cardigan a little as she turned.

"My apologies, Minister," she simpered.

"Take your seat, Madam. The requirements have been fulfilled and found satisfactory by the court. As such, the vote will commence as ordered and agreed upon."

Something dangerous flickered in her eyes, but it was gone a second later. She gave Kingsley a polite nod and returned to her seat.

Hermione let out the breath she'd been holding. That woman was positively unstable. At the conclusion of the separate discussions the court held with Charlie, Firenze, Remus, and Hagrid, Hermione had petitioned the court to move to the vote. Before the last word had cleared Hermione's lips, Umbridge was out of her seat and waddling over to her. The look in her eye was murderous, and she had clearly taken temporary leave of good sense.

Though it was difficult to focus on little else than the pink nightmare headed her way, out of the corner of her eye she had seen Sirius stand and draw his wand. They were really going to have to have a talk about this knight in shining armor thing.

Hermione turned to smile at him, to reassure him and was surprised to find that Sirius wasn't the only male in her life currently stowing their wands. Remus and Charlie were sitting with him and all three of them on their feet. By the door, Hagrid was fussing with his umbrella.

Oh, for heaven's sake!

Hermione swiveled to look at Harry and Ron. They too were reclaiming their seats. Didn't anyone think she was capable of handling herself? Still standing in the center round, Firenze gazed curiously around the room, apparently untroubled.

Fantastic, she thought sourly. The centaur believed in her.

"Ms. Granger, you may take your seat now," said Kingsley.

"Thank you, Minister."

Hermione calmly walked back to the row where Sirius and his apparent band of Merry Men were sitting.

"I am not Maid Marian in need of rescue," she whispered to him.

Sirius gave her a cool up and down glance, and then smirked.

"And you, you're not Robin Hood," she insisted. "Are we clear?"

"I don't really think your analogy there works, kitten," he said smoothly.

Hermione growled softly; he could be so infuriating at times. He got her point and was nitpicking to get under her skin; he had a fascination for that.

"I thought Disney could bring it down to your level."

Beside her Remus jiggled with laughter and none of them noticed that the vote was in progress.

"In fact," said Sirius, confident and at ease, his usual modus operandi when arguing with her because it had the potential to make her apoplectic, "depending on the version, Marian gives as good as she gets with old Robin. In the ballad Robin Hood and Maid Marian she faces off with her beloved in a bit of sword play."

"What I wouldn't give for a sword," muttered Hermione.

Dropping his voice to a husky whisper Sirius said, "I'll give you a sword when we get home."

Remus coughed. "Lame, Padfoot; very, very lame."

"Shut it, you," hissed Sirius, while making a bad attempt at suppressing laughter.

Hermione opened her mouth to retort, but before she could speak, Kingsley banged his gavel again. "The ayes have it; motion passed!"

"You did it, love," whispered Sirius, and then kissed her cheek.

Hermione blinked rapidly and then pushed Sirius' shoulder. "You made me miss it!"

"I gave you something to focus on other than the votes," he disagreed.

"You're still in trouble for the white knight nonsense," she muttered disagreeably.

Sirius put his large hand over hers and gave it a squeeze. "I waited a long time for you, sweeting, and I wasn't about to let some fuzzy pink toad lay a finger on your beautiful head. Now come on, we've a bit of celebrating to do."

With an arm protectively around her waist once they were standing in aisle, Hermione took her congratulations from the members of the court as they filed out. The "fuzzy pink toad" took her leave through a back exit. Hermione had never felt more powerful in her life.

Once they were in the hall, Hermione got her first glimpse of Percy since the break-up. He was standing in a crowd with the Minister, Nymphadora Tonks and a few other Aurors. Tonks whispered something in his ear that made Percy turn bright red.

"See there?"

Hermione jumped, surprised to hear Charlie's voice in her ear. Sirius was still connected to her with his arm around her waist, but he had relaxed a little and was currently teasing Remus about his choice of bedfellows.

"Percy and Tonks?"

Charlie shrugged. "Maybe; she'll keep things interesting for him at any rate."

"Charlie boy," interrupted Sirius, "you coming to the pub with us?"

Charlie winked at Hermione. "I wouldn't miss it."